NORMAL — March entered like a lion. And that was on the basketball court.
The girls’ team from St. Thomas More applied a full-court blitz from the outset and stormed past Prophetstown 70-34 on Saturday night in the Class 2A state championship game at Illinois State University’s Redbird Arena.
As is their custom, the Sabers started strong, scoring five points in the first 30 seconds of a game they never trailed.
“I’m overwhelmed,” said Tori McCoy, who put up a double-double and scored her 1,000th career point. “All this in one day is exciting. It feels wonderful.”
In 19 minutes, McCoy scored 17 points and grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds.
With back-to-back title-game appearances and consecutive seasons of setting the school’s single-season record for victories, STM’s group was already proven winners.
Saturday night, they left as proven champions, extending their season winning streak to 23 games.
McCoy’s milestone 1,000th career point came on an assist from Courtney Wax 2 minutes, 12 seconds into the game. Her layup gave the Sabers an 11-3 lead.
STM scored on each of its first seven possessions, twice converting offensive rebounds for two points. In the first half, while building 30-point lead, STM committed only three turnovers.
“It’s tough to go wire-to-wire (as the state’s top-ranked team),” St. Thomas More coach Chris Mennig said. “For them to put it together and go through the gauntlet of challenges I put them through with the schedule, I can’t say enough about it.”
A championship was an expectation the Sabers were saddled with almost as soon as the 2013 title game ended. With three prominent underclassmen returning, in the eyes of outsiders this was the team to beat.
In Class 2A this season, no one could do so. The STM losses were to a 3A and a 4A opponent. Mennig required more proof than the knowledge of who was returning on his roster before he was ready to anoint his team as the favorite.
That moment, however, arrived earlier in the season. It was Game 1.
His Sabers went to Naperville to play a Neuqua Valley team that is currently one of the eight finalists in Class 4A. STM won by 14 points.
“That’s when I knew we were on to something special,” Mennig said. “That gave me a sense that this could be a very unique group.”
On Saturday, in the fifth month that St. Thomas More played games, the season ended the way it began: with an impressive triumph.
St. Thomas More’s 36-point margin of victory against Prophetstown tied for the second greatest in the 38 years of IHSA state finals. STM built leads as large as 44 points.
“We came out and played Saber basketball and did what we do best,” said senior Randa Harshbarger, who had three solo steals in the first quarter. “It was important that we set the tone right from the start.”
Mennig pulled out each of his five starters — McCoy, Harshbarger, Lexi Wallen, Courtney Wax and Liz Bristow — at separate times so each could get an ovation from the crowd.
With 28.2 seconds remaining, he put Harshbarger and Wax back in the game so they could finish their careers on the court with the team’s third senior, Taylor During.
Wallen, who made seven shots in a row, including two three-pointers, was the game’s top scorer with 18 points. Bristow added 13 points and Harshbarger 12.
The dominance of the STM program this season was reflected by the respect it received when state coaches voted on a combined 1A/2A all-state team for the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association.
Three STM starters were picked for the 15-player first team. Tori McCoy was the second-leading vote-getter, trailing only state career scoring leader Tyra Buss, from Mount Carmel. Lexi Wallen and Randa Harshbarger were also first-team choices.
Watseka’s three-point shooting state champion, Devin Curry, was picked for the 15-player second team.
The third and fourth teams each consisted of 20 players. STM junior Liz Bristow was on the third team along with Parkland College recruit Haley Toohill, from Clinton. Sullivan’s Brittin Boyer was the lone area athlete on the fourth team.
The IBCA also recognized 69 athletes as special mention selections.
STM’s fifth starter, senior Courtney Wax, was in this group along with Clinton teammates Megan Tool, Payton Bieber and Haley Ginger as well as Cissna Park’s Addison Stoller, Georgetown-Ridge Farm’s Brittany Hay, Judah Christian’s Kristina Lee, Schlarman’s Sierra Bell, Shiloh’s Lauren Moses and St. Joseph-Ogden’s Aysia Jacobs.
Harshbarger and Curry will receive invitations to the seniors-only IBCA all-star game on June 21 at Illinois Wesleyan University.
Sabers’ team champions
Girls’ basketball became the fourth sport offered by St. Thomas More to capture a team state title in the school’s 13 years of existence.
The first championship team was Tim Murphy’s boys’ golf squad in 2008. Coach Pat Hettermann’s girls’ golf team matched the feat in 2011 and, in 2012, the boys’ cross-country team, coached by David Behm, won the Class 1A state crown.
Home away from home
The Sabers needed a location for a Saturday afternoon shootaround, and former Centennial athletic director Stan Lewis came to the rescue. Now the athletic director at Normal West, Lewis opened up the Wildcats’ gym for St. Thomas More.
Back at it
The weather may indicate otherwise, but Monday is the first official day for high school spring sports teams to start practicing. For STM’s softball-playing basketball players such as Leah Allison, Andie Bolton, Lauren Croft and During, it means a resumption of practices again after a one-day rest.
It didn’t work
As the game’s final minutes ticked off, the Saber Pack student cheering section began a chant, “No school Monday,” directed to Principal Ryan Bustle.
He got the message but said after the game, “If this was a year without snow days, I might think about it, but not this year.”
Rantoul’s Mark Brooks, in his third state tournament assignment, worked the Class 2A third-place game as the lead official. Teutopolis, which lost to STM in the semifinals, rebounded to edge Elmhurst Immaculate Conception 32-28 and capture third place. It is the 12th top-three finish at state in basketball for the Wooden Shoes.
Sophomore Tori McCoy on Saturday became the sixth member of the 1,000-point club in the 13-year history of St. Thomas More girls’ basketball. The school’s career leaders:
NAME YEARS POINTS
Lexi Wallen 2011-14 1,594
Randa Harshbarger 2010-14 1,524
Ashley Hayes 2002-04 1,248
Kassie Jones 2005-09 1,183
Jade Brinkoetter 2009-13 1,153
Tori McCoy 2012-14 1,014